Seeking out German food for a fine-dining experience is tantamount to seeking sex advice from Simon Leis: It's the last call you'll never make. So when my editor assigned me to review Wertheim's Restaurant in Covington, I whined and dragged my feet. Maybe I'm still full. Being third-generation German myself — blonde and blue-eyed with a family name that produces phlegm at the back of the throat if pronounced properly — I was weaned from the bottle on wienerschnitzel, sauerbrauten, potato pancakes, knockwurst and sauerkraut. Lots of sauerkraut: sauerkraut balls, kraut and boiled potatoes, even sauerkraut cake (surprisingly good). None of it bad food, just heavy and, well, boring. Even so, I swallowed my childhood memories and cheerfully invited several friends (also of German heritage) to dine at Wertheim's with me.
Wertheim's, for 10 years nestled into the über-quaint Mainstrasse Village in Covington, serves traditional German fare as well as a variety of Midwestern items such as burgers, taco salad, pork chops and fish. We arrived at Wertheim's at 7 p.m. and were surprised to find only one other table of four diners in the 120-seat restaurant. As we were to discover, that should have been an omen.
After our meal, which progressed from bad to awful to "worst dining experience I've had in 20 years" (a comment from one of my guests), we understood why they served only eight people that evening.
In fact, if I hadn't been on assignment, I would have asked for the entire price of my meal to be refunded, something I have never done.
Before I describe our meal, I should note that our server was sweet and attentive, even accommodating a request to lower the volume of the blaring television, which was competing with the piped-in oldies station (she went one better and turned off the TV).
We began with Sauerkraut Balls ($4.95), described as a "Covington tradition served with cocktail sauce and sauerkraut." Four of them arrived around a hill of sauerkraut. As we each bit into a dark, deep-fried outside, we discovered raw batter on the inside. As far as eating raw batter goes, the flavor was OK, but please adjust the temperature of the deep fryer. Kartoffel Puffer ($3), "two homemade potato pancakes with applesauce," were simply awful. Thin, extremely bland and very greasy, they were served with a tiny portion of equally bland applesauce. We left them unfinished.
Since we weren't impressed so far with the German fare, we decided to order more mainstream American. Grilled Chicken Fettuccini ($11.95) arrived as a large bowl of totally flavorless white sauce with mushy noodles that broke apart on the fork, topped with a breast of overcooked, dry chicken and a side of canned parmesan cheese.
But the Whitefish ($13.95) took the cake. Described as "a generous portion of fresh" — take note of the adjective — "fish, baked or blackened, cooked to perfection, served with lemon butter, choice of potato or vegetable," it proved to be a square of dry, over-baked fish with the overwhelming flavor of freezer burn. It arrived with a soufflé cup of (I kid you not) vegetable oil — not lemon butter. Not a lemon wedge in sight.
My guest had chosen "sautéed fresh mushrooms" as the vegetable choice: It came swimming in the same oil and, like everything else, was beyond flavorless. Simultaneously amused and appalled, we returned this entrée.
Donna's Veggie Sandwich ($4.75) suffered from false advertising as well. Two pieces of processed American cheese instead of "cheddar and Swiss cheese slices," two thick cucumber slices, one hard tomato slice and a couple of small slivers of green pepper made up this "healthy and hearty" sandwich. As if we hadn't had enough, we ordered desserts, coffee and cappuccino. Taste of Cincinnati "Best Dessert" awards were framed on the wall in front of us for Wertheim's Kentucky Silk Pie ($3), and our server recommended the Black Forest Cake ($3) as another popular dessert. The pie was a semi-frozen wedge of barely-there chocolate-flavored whipped cream on a sugary crust; the cake was a slice of three chocolate layers with cream and gelatinous cherries. Neither was bad, but not good either, and certainly not award-winning by my standards.
The cappuccino was so bad we spit it out: It was bitter with a strong chemical taste (I suspect from a dirty machine). The server thought it was instant cappuccino; the chief cook said he didn't drink the stuff and was clueless as to why it might taste bad.
Since I had the ear of the cook, I asked him about the "fresh" fish we had been served. He told me, "You can call it fresh as long as it's been frozen for less than four months." He added, "You can't get fresh fish anywhere around here. No restaurants around here (Greater Cincinnati) serve fresh fish."
He must have thought I was one of the hotel patrons/out-of-towners he said were Wertheim's main clientele. It was a horrifying thought to us — that visitors would think this food was representative of our city and of our German heritage.
Go: 514 W. Sixth St.,Covington
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11a.m.-10 p.m.
Payment: All credit cards accepted
Red Meat Alternatives: Chicken, veal, pork and fish dishes. Strict vegetarians will go hungry.